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Berenty: Journal | Pictures

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The transfer to Berenty usually takes around 2 hours to go about 80 km on a paved road -- though our trip takes slightly longer due to a tire blowout that almost causes us to leave the road and get up close and personal with the spiny forest. The drive is interesting taking you from the mountainous tropical forests and rice paddies of Fort Dauphin through a transitional vegetation zone (with the rare triangular palms Neodypsis decary) to the flat, dry spiny forest that is unique to this part of Madagascar. Virtually every plant in this ecosystem is coated in thorns and is well adapted to retaining moisture that is so rare in this climate.

Along the road we pass some small villages selling charcoal made from the spiny forest tree Alluaudia. Use of the spiny forest for charcoal is the biggest threat to this special ecosystem.

Berenty sits amid a giant sisal plantation and you drive for about 20 minutes through these fields before reaching the tourist facilities and lodge. Sisal is an exotic catcus that was introduced for its value as a fiber. Sisal production has climbed in recent years to do the demand for biogradable packaging. Thus an unintended result of the adoption of more environmentally friendly packaging is the destruction of this endemic ecosystem.

Berenty is a private reserve located in a section of gallery forest bordering the Mandare river. The reserve is world famous for its tame lemurs -- specifically the ring-tailed lemur and Verreaux's sifaka. Walking to my bungalow I'm greeted by a group of scrawny-looking ringtails (at least scrawny relative to the ringtails of Isalo). Later I learn from Alison Jolly, a primatologist who has studied the ring-tails of Berenty for more than 40 years and author of Lords and Lemurs, that their condition is the result of eating the toxic leaves of an introduced tree species. The owner of Berenty, M Jean de Heaulme, has an obsession with introducing alien plant and animals to the reserve (reportedly, he even tried to bring gorillas over from mainland Africa before he was thwarted by the Malagasy government). In any case, Jolly and her team have observed ringtails feeding on the poisonous leaves during the lean months (the dry season August-November) when other food sources are not available. Jolly is currently working to remove the offensive trees.

Berenty is among the most tourist-oriented destinations in Madagascar. The trails are flat and broad, the wildlife (most people come for the lemurs) is friendly and abundant, and the facilities are up to Western standards (though if you leave your door or windows open you may have lemurs come into your room for a visit). That said, I can't in good conscience recommend Berenty to visitors. The colonial atmosphere, lack of appreciation for the staff by management, and the disrupted habitat and wildlife in my opinion make visiting Berenty a somewhat guilt-ridden experience. I would not support the regime by visiting the reserve again. I feel that since my last visit in 1997 things have changed for the worse. This is not to say that the situation will not improve, but for my next trip I will be avoiding Berenty and probably give Amboasary Sud and/or Andohahela a try.

With that out of the way, a little more on Berenty. Over the next day and a half on walks in the gallery forest I observe the following: Verreaux's sifakas, red-fronted brown lemurs, white-footed sportive lemurs, various birds, and a Verrucosus chameleon. Feeding lemurs has been prohibited since 1997, though you'll still be approached by ring-tails looking for a handout. Do not give them one!!

On night hikes in the spiny forest you'll hear and likely see grey mouse lemurs and white-footed sportive lemurs along with assorted insects and sleeping birds and reptiles. In the late afternoon if you head to the right location (ask your guide) you can see the sifaka crossing the road. It is quite a sight watching the sifakas sashay across the red sand. You may also hear the various calls of ring-tailed lemurs [Video - Windows Media] as the sifakas "perform." [Windows Media Videos: 1 | 2 | 31 | ]

This time of year (mid to late October) it is cool and quite windy in Berenty. If you wear contacts you might experience some discomfort with the amount of dust blowing in the air. Also take care with camera equipment -- the fine red dust settles everywhere and gets into everything.

The lemurs also express their discomfort at this time of year with the temperature. In the morning and under overcast skies you'll see groups of ring-tailed lemurs closely huddled together trying to keep warm (red-fronted brown lemurs will wrap themselves in their tail in an effort to retain body heat). As soon as the sun comes out, lemurs will sun themselves with arms outstretched and palms turned upwards.

Berenty has a small "zoo" consisting of some of the region's reptiles including turtles, tortoises, and crocodiles. More impressive is the Museum of the Androy, a fantastic ethnological museum exhibiting local artifacts of the local Antandroy people and explaining their history and cultural practices.

On the itinerary of most visitors to Berenty is a trip to the sisal factory. Sisal is a cactus fiber used for rope and packaging. Workers harvest sisal leaves from the plantation and bring them to the factory for processing. Barefoot workers dressed in rags feed raw sisal leaves into a processing machine which grinds the sisal into greenish fibers. The process generates bring green wastewater that is toxic. This effuse is dried and then burned to produce a fertilizer used for vegetable crops.

We see the various production stages from the fiber drying racks to the final packaging before shipping (usually in 150 kg pallets shipped to Spain or France). The business is said to be quite profitable and the de Heaulmes provide housing for workers. You may also stop by the ostrich farm where the owner has been trying to breed ostriches since 1997. The Malagasy guides are unsure as to the purpose for breeding this giant birds -- they claim it's not for meat.

Ring-tailed lemurs are so accustomed to humans they are almost pests at Berenty. At breakfast a mother lemur with baby sits in the chair across from me at the breakfast table until shooshed away by the waiter. It appears the wait staff spends a good portion of their time chasing off the lemurs. Later the same morning, as I'm packing in my room, another female lemur with baby in tote jumps through the window and comes to sit on my bed.

Osama bin Laden t-shirts appear to be in style among villagers on the drive back to Fort. Dauphin.


Almost all pictures on this site were taken with a Konica Minolta

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